Léna Mahfouf may be a star on French social media, but when she ventured into literature with the publication of a self-help guide in September, booksellers were skeptical. “A lot of them said, ‘Ah no, your book, it’s la merde, we don’t want it in our shops,’” the 22-year-old YouTuber says.
They have changed their tune, however. To the astonishment of the Parisian literary establishment, it turned out to be the bestselling book of the autumn in France. The initial 62,000 print-run of Toujours Plus (Always More) was snapped up within three weeks, and Robert Laffont, the publisher, is bringing out a further 150,000 copies to meet demand.
“It’s incredible,” says Mahfouf, who writes under the pen name Léna Situations, which is also the identity she uses when posting videos on YouTube or Instagram about, for example, splitting up with her boyfriend or going on holiday to Mykonos with her new one (who also happens to be a French Internet star).
The Real Deal
Mahfouf is articulate, effervescent and smart to realize that if she was to make a name for herself, she had to get away from the French habit of posting photographs and videos on the Internet that seem to come straight out of an haute couture show. Although she is often filmed in glamorous attire — usually supplied by the luxury brands who pay her to wear it — she also shows herself pale and without makeup, bleary-eyed behind studious glasses, or hit by anxiety attacks.
With her round, amenable-looking face, she comes over as a successful version of the girl next door, which makes a notable change in a city where women are expected to fit one of two stereotypes: the top model or the left-wing intellectual. Mahfouf is neither, at least judging by her inaugural work. She describes the book as a written version of her online videos — partly an autobiographical account of her struggles with daily woes such as the curly hair about which she had a teenage complex, the jobs she needed to do to pay for her studies, or the online sexism she encountered after becoming known, and partly the publication of tips for readers on issues such as coming to terms with an imperfect body or avoiding toxic friends.
Mahfouf sees her rise to the top of the French book charts as a triumph over the “intellectual snobbery” of an elite that sneered at the social media that made her famous and poured scorn on her literary aspirations. Her critics see it as the symbol of a particularly vacuous era that places style above substance, and marketing skills above intellectualism. Either way, Mahfouf’s foray into prose has revealed the width of the Parisian cultural divide that separates the Internet generation from elders brought up on pen and paper.
A notable change in a city where women are expected to fit one of two stereotypes: the top model or the left-wing intellectual.
She was born in the capital to parents who arrived in France a quarter of a century ago from North Africa. Her father, who has French nationality, is Christian and a puppeteer by trade. Her mother is an Algerian Muslim who worked as a self-employed fashion designer. Mahfouf and her younger brother were “free to choose” their religion. They read the Torah, the Koran and the Bible, which Mahfouf says was “very enriching” and which left her with “the values of all the religions mixed together”.
Although spirituality is scarcely prominent in her online posts, it may be that her upbringing helped her to steer away from some of the unpleasantness that is the hallmark of other French YouTube stars, for whom insults are often the stock in trade.
“The social media networks are like a playground where nastiness is banal and where the nastier you are the funnier you are,” says Mahfouf, who prefers a kinder tone that she says goes down well with the 18 to 24-year-old women who make up most of her 1.6 million followers on YouTube, 2.4 million on Instagram and 1.3 million on TikTok. One suspects the tone also goes down well with groups such as Dior, Balmain, Prada and Disney, with which she has commercial contracts that earn her “enough to go shopping, although not enough to buy a flat”.
When in New York …
She began posting videos while studying for a degree at a Paris business school, specializing in luxury and fashion marketing, and initially all were about the industry in which she dreamt of working. “It was purely fashion,” she tells me when I call her. “I was like a lot of other YouTubers in France, showing a lifestyle which was not my real lifestyle. It was like a magazine or a film. You get out of bed already made-up, there are garlands in your bedroom, you wake up early and do yoga and afterwards you eat muesli. But in reality, life was not like that.”
Her rose-tinted vision brought her 100,000 followers, which in Internet terms is small fry. But that changed when she spent six eye-opening months in New York as part of her studies and decided that her life had become so interesting that it was worth showing in full — bad moments and all. She turned her posts into an online blog version of Friends, with herself in the main role, she says, and “it worked enormously well”. When she returned to France she had 500,000 or so followers, prompting her to abandon plans for a master’s degree and become a full-time influencer, or creator of content, as she prefers to call it.
Her posts have a transatlantic feel to them, with upbeat Americanism interspersed with bouts of French gloom. Some feature her at fashion shows, for instance, while others show her washed out and in need of a rest. “My message is not that life is beautiful all the time. It is that we know negative things will happen … and that our goal should be to advance despite that. Initially, I didn’t want to show it when I was feeling down or anguished. But little by little I felt more comfortable about showing that because I didn’t want to portray a false life that is going to give people complexes.
“The social media networks can have a lot of plus sides, but they can also be very harmful when you compare yourself to someone who always seems happy and who never seems to have a problem. My goal is really not that. I want my platform to be ultra-kind.”
Léna Mahfouf’s posts have a transatlantic feel to them, with upbeat Americanism interspersed with bouts of French gloom.
She has not always received kindness in return, however. When she posted pictures of herself in lingerie, and in a low-cut dress this spring, for instance, “I found myself the target of completely crazy hatred because I have small breasts.” At the age of 22 she is “an old lady” in Internet terms, she says, and mature enough “to handle the fact that people mock my body. But what worries me is that there are a lot of younger people who are going to see those comments and either get a complex about their own bodies or think that it’s normal to be nasty like that.”
The avalanche of body-shaming came to an end when her “community”, as Internet icons like to call their followers, posted photographs of their own “small boobs” — often using the English term — under the hashtag, #LénaChallenge, in response to the sexism. As a result, Mahfouf became a sort of a feminist symbol and earned a glowing portrait in Libération, the left-wing daily.
Nevertheless, she recognizes that the capricious nature of Internet trends means that her popularity could come to a sudden end at any time. One gets the impression that Toujours Plus is an attempt to put down roots in what remains a bookish society, widening her audience beyond followers who could soon be following someone else. “Online content is very ephemeral,” she says. “An Instagram story lasts only 24 hours, a video lasts until I do another video. But a book is an object that stays over time.”
One gets the impression that Toujours Plus is an attempt to put down roots in what remains a bookish society.
She says she aimed to write a self-help guide of the sort that are common in the US, although with a French slant. “I have seen a lot of notably American self-help books on how to become a millionaire in 30 stages, or the key to happiness in 30 days, and I didn’t really see myself doing that. My goal was to write something very personal about what I felt and about the things that worked for me.” There are passages, for instance, on the psychological lift she got from finding a look in keeping with her personality as a teenager, or about realizing that she enjoyed going for a coffee or a walk on her own, without necessarily a friend for company. Then there is advice on “handling a break-up”, “reprogramming your brain towards the positive”, or “confronting adversity”.
Toujours Plus came out a month ago amid a mixture of indifference and hostility. Book critics ignored it and “very few booksellers wanted to order it, either out of intellectual snobbery or because they had never heard of it”, she says. But sales took off on Amazon and other sites, which got the mainstream media interested and prompted even traditional booksellers to start stocking it. Soon it was at the top of the charts.
It is difficult to know whether to ascribe the success of Toujours Plus to the literary merits of its author, or to a fad driven by her fans. Opinions vary, at least judging by reactions in the Parisian bookshop where I bought a copy. The bookseller grumbled darkly and shook his head, but went to fetch it from the shelves nevertheless. “I can’t understand why anyone would want to read it,” he said, before being interrupted by the publisher’s representative who happened to be in the shop. “I’ve read it and it’s not bad,” she said. “It’s good advice for adolescent girls.”